Friday, June 19, 2009

15 June 2009 - Polebridge, Montana

I have just finished the first three days of hiking, exiting Glacier National Park and crossing out of the park into Polebridge, a small outpost on the park's western border. The three days have brought some good adventures and a good flavor for the rest of the trip.

One of the major themes such far in the hike has been bears. GOing into the hike, I was well aware that we would be crossing through Grizzly country. I wasn't quite sure what to expect.

When we first arrived in the park, we met with some rangers to plan a three day hike through the park. For what we planned, they cautioned that there would be many bears and that the distance was very difficult. We shrugged off their warnings. Shortly into our walk while still hiking on the main road leading to the trail, another ranger stopped us, warned us more about bears ("you need to be very clean") and querstioned the route we were taking ("do you know what you're getting into?" "I can't bewlieve they'd let you do this"). He ultimately wished us good luck, and off we went, hiking a fairly worn trail which ran along the length of Glacier's largest lake which is flanked by snow capped mountains on all sides. At the end of the lake we transferred to anoteher trail which crossed over a ridge of mountains, ultimately leading into another river valley. While climbing the ridge, we encoutnered three groups of day hikers--2 had just seen black bears and 1 had just seen a grizzly bear. It made me realize that bears were inevitable on this walk. We descneded into the Camas river valley and made a journey north along a string of lakes. The walk was slowed by some recent last winter avalanches which completely cleared the mountainside in three places, leaving three large piles of snow, rock, and tress which towered many meters over the trail. There must have been so much snow piled here originally because in mid-June after multiple 80 degree days, the snow was still meters deep.

After 17 miles of backwoods hiking for the day, we arrived at Arrow Lake, the site of our campsite. Arrow Lake is relatively small, perhaps five miles around, but it is completely surrounded by snow capped peaks (about 6) which have numerous waterfalls dropping hundreds of feet into the lake. The entire shoreline is covered in thick pine forest which create a solid canopy even in our campsite. The picturesque views were stymied by packs of flies that aggressively bit through our clothes, forcing us to retreat to our tent. There was one couple staying at the campground. The guy worked for the park and said that this lake was home to the densest grizzly population in the continental US. He helped alleviate my concerns with bears confirmining that officials create fear to ensure you follow the rules and that bears will avoid you unless you are stupid and surprise them. Considering how many people that I met that day which safely encountered bears--just that day--I started to believe that an attack is rare and most common with bad behavior.

The following morning we begtan a hike along the river valley to North Fork Road. After backtracking three miles, we began a seven mile stretch which looked unused so far this season. Every few meters was a blown over tree which forced us to climb over, under, or around the tree. This made the seven mile stretch extend to over five hours. The trail had other surprises such as a strong river which we had to ford. The water was about waist deep and freezing (melted glacial ice) and the current made it a rather unsafe crossing. We all eventually crossed having picked up some learnings and frustrations in the process.

It was obvious that no human had used the trail all year, but fortunately plenty of bears had used the trail, making it somewhat navigable. A lot of bear tracks were fresh, causing me to keep up constant banter in hoping to scare away any bears. About midway through the trail, we broke out of the woods onto a large meadow. On our left was the river and on our right was a hill covered in dried out, blown down trees. It looked exactly like the scenes from a Discvoery Channel show on grizzlies. The numerous bear tracks made it probable that I had seen this very meadow on a show. We continued to make noise as I led us through the border of the meadow and the hill. We were moving slowly due to all the blowdown> I had just climbed over a fallen trunk and was looking down the trail at the series of other trunks we had to cross when I saw the head of a grizzly pop up over some fallen trees. He was walking the same trail in the same direction as us. I'd estimate that he was 50 yards in front of me. In all reality he probably heard us before and was retreating down the path, but we went into precautionary mode. The bear wasn't looking at us, so we made our presence obvious by talking for about five minutes, ensuring we wouldn't surprise him. After five minutes, Dave breavely lead us down the trail, we all kept scanning, looking for where he had gone.

Eventually we made it through the trail, encountering just a few more deer but plenty of bear tracks (at one time there were so many bear trails, I didn't know what I was supposed to follow).

After our ten miles on the trail we began an 11 mile hike along a dirt road. I was surprised to see the road impassible to all but hikers as scores of trees had fallen over the road. The going was slow but far faster than the trail. We saw two black bears. With a few miles to go we encountered some wolf researchers who were trying to trap some wolves. We had been walking along the favorite route of two wolf pakcs. The wolf people were very friendlyu and even knew that we were coming. We talked awhile and then proceeded to a ranger cabin farther down the trail.

When we reached the ranger's cabin, it was getting late and we were tired from our treacherous 21 miles. We had a permit to stay at a lake another six miles away, but the rangers knew we were coming and permitted us to sleep in their yard. It surprised me how everyone we met that day knew who we were and where we were going. Apparently not many people do what we are doing, and the park was making sure we were safe.

Today we had a casual walk along the road to the town of Polebridge. This town is not much more than a mercantile, saloon, and hostel, but it serves as the commercial hub of the area. We are staying in the rustic hostel which gives you the lodging option of bed, tent, or tepee--we took the bed. I am spending the evening eating and resting my sore body. Tomorrow we have another long walk which will lead us onto the official trail. To this point we have been making an alternate route becuase the "official" trail start is impassable due to excessive snow.

Lake McDonald...the first leg of many.

Sign that we saw at most trailheads for the first few weeks.

Arrow Lake, the site of our first campsite.

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